Pathway to Paris

It’s a Tuesday night during a Melbourne winter, and Oneata ‘Onnie’ Schwalger is training in the middle of Orrong Park in Malvern. This is her final home training session with her club before she flies out to Paris for the Women’s Rugby World Cup (WRWC), beginning on August 1st.

Orrong Park is flooded with light, and players from Melbourne club, The Unicorns, are out on the ovals. Tonight, Onnie will train with the first grade men’s team.

Onnie has been playing rugby since she was 12 years old, and this is the first year she has been selected for The Wallaroos; she qualified back in 2011, but the side was cut that year. This is now her second year with The Unicorns, and she was instrumental in developing the women’s side for the club, which hadn’t had one for 10 years.

The Wallaroos are still considered an amateur side by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and International Rugby Board (IRB). Each of the players and coaching staff have taken time off in order to attend the international competition.

“I’ve put my career on hold for the last two months, I’m probably in the car around four hours a day travelling all over Melbourne for training and appointments,” Onnie says.

“I’m basically training like an animal, two or three times a day. It’s a sacrifice I’ve had to make in the short term to keep my position with the Wallaroos, I’m a starting prop, and I want to keep that number one jersey”.

This dedication to rugby is something all the players possess. Louise Burrows is based in Canberra, and holds a hooker position on the team. Louise is a PE teacher, and mother of two.

“I’m busy, but I wouldn’t have any other way,” she says.

“I work full-time, so for me the work/life balance is important. My alarm goes off at 5.30am, some days are long days. I get home and I’m ready for bed without having sat down all day.”

Although the lead up to the competition has been tough, the players have found huge support within the Rugby Union community. The ARU is covering their accommodation, meals and flights while they represent Australia in Paris. Meanwhile, both Onnie and Louise have been able to train with their local Super Rugby teams. Onnie has been attending training sessions with the Melbourne Rebels, while Louise has been able spend time with the Brumbies

A lot of the Rebels didn’t even know we had a Women’s World Cup, but since finding out they’ve just been awesome and doing anything they can to help us.

Onnie has been attending training sessions with the Melbourne Rebels, while Louise has been able spend time with the Brumbies.

“A lot of the Rebels didn’t even know we had a Women’s World Cup, but since finding out they’ve just been awesome and doing anything they can to help us, it’s great because it’s like a rugby family,” Onnie says.

Although the ARU has been covering many of the immediate costs, there is hidden expenditures. To help on the pathway to Paris, the Unicorns hosted a successful fundraising event.

“I’m a person who just asks for help, and we were able to build the profile of my own club, and we had support from the Rebels and the Wallabies,” Onnie says.

“Once we held our fundraiser, I had a lot of businesses come up to me and say they wanted to help—they just didn’t know about us, and they wanted to do something to help build women’s rugby, and that’s the biggest thing, people don’t know unless you say something.”

The WRWC has been a global event since 1991, but it didn’t receive official sanctioning from the IRB until the 1998 competition; the same year the Wallaroos made their debut on the world stage, coming in fifth place.

The team has since participated in four World Cups, and placed third during the last competition in London 2010, behind New Zealand and England.

The ‘Pathway to Paris’ is now almost over for the Wallaroos, who are flying out to the World Cup on July 27th. As this article goes to print, the team will have just arrived in Paris, after completing a week of camp together in Narrabeen, Sydney.

The team is based all around Australia, and the camp was held in order to finalise their extensive satellite trainings. Head coach, Paul Verrell, says coordinating training is a difficult task, but is made successful by the dedication of the team.

“I mainly monitor what they need to work on, and keep in contact with their club coaches to get more training and developing, the biggest problem is we’re not together on a permanent basis,” he says.

Dalena Dennison is a flanker/lock based in Queensland, and says coordinating team practice across Australia can have its challenges.

“A lot of the time I do the training on my own,” she says.

Dalena plays for the same club as fellow Wallaroo, Hayley Barclay, and says that makes it easier to stay focused.

“We keep each other on track and push each other, it’s nicer when you’ve got someone else there,” she says.

Earlier this year the Wallaroos were given the opportunity to compete in a Tri-Nations tournament with New Zealand and Canada, the first time the team played test matches in the same year as a World Cup.

I’m achieving my goals at the moment and I no have intentions of stopping.

The Tri-Nations was vital to their World Cup preparation. Many of the players had never met each other, and the competition enabled the team to bond and highlight key areas to work on.

“The results weren’t what we hoping for, we were right into the game for 60 minutes but the back end of the game was where we faltered, we struggled with the higher intensity,” Paul says.

“We needed to step up the conditioning, which is what we’ve done.”

“The Tri-Nations were great, before then we just didn’t know how we would all play together and we were a worried about that,” Onnie says.

“We could figure out what worked and what didn’t—and although we didn’t get the result on the scoreboard, we got the result we wanted off the field. You knew what you needed to work on, it gave us a chance to fine tune things, and that’s the purpose of a test match.

“We’re on the same page, and we all have the confidence to speak to each other now. We played against New Zealand and I came off that field and I thought, ‘Far out—we’re not too far from them and they’re the best in the world’,” she says.

For the month long competition in Europe, the team will be accompanied by a small coaching team, headed by Paul Verrell. They’ll also be travelling with an ARU representative, an assistant coach and a manager. The players will also be supported by a small medical team, including a doctor and physiotherapist.

“We’re playing five games in 18 days, which is something the girls aren’t used to at this intensity, a top priority for the staff will be getting our recovery right between games,” says Paul.

“Our focus is one game at a time, but things will take care of themselves, and we’ll end up in the top four.”

The Wallaroos will go up against South Africa, Wales and France for their pool matches this year, in order to qualify for the play-offs and finals.

“To wear the green and gold jersey is not something that everyone gets to do, and it makes it more special for me being a mother now,” says Louise Burrows. “I’m achieving my goals at the moment and I no have intentions of stopping. The next world cup is only 3 years away so I can definitely do another one.”

By Sarah Maunder



Cover image: Paul Verrell addressing the team at a practice, courtesy of Getty Images. 



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